Tough Puffs

Dandelions are one of those plants that people love to hate. They’re tenacious, perennial, copious; their tap roots run deep and even cut blossoms will still turn to seed heads if they aren’t culled early enough. Their leaves spread flat and wide, smothering anything beneath.

If we didn’t hate them, we’d love them for their reliability and bright sunny beauty. But the fact is, even though they were first introduced in the United States as a salad variety in the 1600s, the general consensus is that dandelions are weeds.

That’s why any weedkiller worth the name is made to wipe out dandelions. Oh, they just come back again – that’s just what dandelions do. As I ran by a freshly tilled field, I noticed bright globes of white scattered like rice at a wedding. Dandelion puffs, all in full seed, probably cut when the tractor was skimming the margins of the field.

Dandelion heads, farming, agriculture,plowed field

Severed dandelion puffs seeding a freshly tilled field.
Photo: PKR

Regardless of which crop is going to be grown on the field this season, it will include a healthy portion of dandelions. Unless, of course, the farmer sprays the ubiquitous glyphosate weedkiller – under trade pressure from the US and swayed by the vote of the Germany in support of Monsanto’s RoundUp in late 2017, the import and use of glyphosate has been extended for another five years in the European Union. This in spite of numerous studies showing the danger of the herbicide to the environment and to human health.

Dandelion heads, farming, agriculture,plowed field

Dandelions on the edge of a freshly plowed field.
Photo: PKR

At least the other chemical bugaboos of industrial farming, neonicotinoids, were banned by the EU for the foreseeable future. Good news for bees and other pollinators! It would be great to see the US follow suit.

Future Investment

Seeds 2 (pure fractal flame) Artist: Cory Ench via Fractal World Gallery

Seeds 2 (pure fractal flame)
Artist: Cory Ench via Fractal World Gallery

This year marks the first time that all Monsanto Roundup Ready genetically-modified seeds will be off-patent. This means that any company can start making ‘generic’ versions of the GM soybeans, corn and so on – unless, of course, their use and the use of the companion Roundup-based herbicide has been banned*.

The path ahead is complex. Up until now, the source of these particular GM seeds was Monsanto, together with companies to which Monsanto had licensed the use of the these products. As of 2010, this accounted for a staggering 98% of soybean seed and 79% corn seed sales  in the world.

A double-edged sword: On the one hand, Monsanto vigorously guarded the use of its product, taking even farmers who had never planted Roundup Ready seeds to court because open pollination had left them with traces of GM crops in their fields. But it also meant that farmers who might like to ‘go GM’ didn’t due to contractual or pricing concerns. Well, those concerns may fade now, and GM use may spread.

It’s always interesting to take a look at this issue from a different perspective, and sometimes I do that by reading the investment news on seed and chemical companies.

Last year, an article on MSN Money took a look at the Big Three seed companies: Monsanto, Syngenta and DuPont. In choosing which seed company was the best investment, author Jim J. Jubak factored in the loss of patent control, as well as how much of each company’s revenue was actually seed-based (high margin), how much was based on chemical crop protection (‘volatile’), and how much was in other sectors.

Seeds (pure fractal flame) Artist: Cory Ench via Fractal World Gallery

Seeds (pure fractal flame)
Artist: Cory Ench via Fractal World Gallery

In brief, Jubak recommended DuPont. Why? Because the company had none of Monsanto’s patent problems, was shedding its non-seed businesses and buying up seed companies, and was the most focused of the three on the core: Creating and selling seeds.

Why should investors want seed companies in their portfolio? As Jubak said, “By 2050 the world will have a population of 9 billion (very scary) and the world’s farmers will need to double grain production in the face of losses of farmland to urbanization, desertification, drought and pollution.

“That means getting more calories from the world’s food plants by improving yields, by increasing resistance to disease and pests, and by expanding farm production to land that is now marginal because of climate or rainfall (while at the same time resisting attacks on global food production from changes in climate and an increasing incidence of drought.”

For what it’s worth, Jubak was mostly right: Since the article was written in July 2013, Dupont‘s stock has gone up by 16.6 %, Monsant0‘s by 12.59%, and Syngenta‘s has gone down by 6.08%. If Monsanto was going to suffer from the loss of its patents, it hasn’t come through in its stock price.

Now, what’s the point of looking at seeds from an investor’s perspective?

Genetic Code Revisited  Artist: Cory Ench via Fractal World Gallery

Genetic Code Revisited
Artist: Cory Ench via Fractal World Gallery

Because that’s what seeds are. You can see them as an investment in the baldest sense of financial gain, without the baggage of other concerns except as a motivating investment factor.

You can also see them as an investment in the future in terms of feeding the planet, maintaining and promoting biodiversity (both plant and animal), enriching lives and soil, and as a continuation of what we as humans have been doing for millennia.

The two views don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but for the moment, it seems that they are.


*Current bans on use of glyphosate products are in force in Denmark, El Salvador and Sri Lanka.

Generative Art, Rootworm Evolution

A 'sheep' created by Electric Sheep. Image: Überraschungsbilder/Wikipedia

A ‘sheep’ created by Electric Sheep.
Image: Überraschungsbilder/Wikipedia

What do we call evolution that plays with the toys we provide, jumps the obstacles we set, which meets us on the field of our own choosing, and then bests us?

In the case of the shared technology created by Scott Draves for creating ever-changing, computer-human collaborations of software art known as Electric Sheep, we call each new creation a ‘sheep’.

In the case of Bt corn, we call it the ‘rootworm’. This little fellow has evolved both immunity to and an appetite for the very corn that was genetically modified to be resistant to the rootworm (Diabrotica virgifera virgifera).

Actually, Bacillus thuringiensis corn, or Bt corn, was genetically engineered to produce insecticidal toxins derived from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) in order to kill pest insects and reduce the use of conventional insecticides.

Mature corn rootworm beetles. Photo: Univ. of Nebraska/FreeGeorge

Mature corn rootworm beetles.
Photo: Univ. of Nebraska/FreeGeorge

How did the rootworm turn the nifty trick of learning to love the plant created to kill it? It didn’t do it alone – it needed our help. If environmental recommendations had been followed, which is to say, if the GM corn fields had been interspersed with non-GM corn fields at given intervals (50% was the original recommendation, pushed down to 5 – 20% by seed companies and the Environmental Protection Agency, the rootworm might have stuck to the tasty, non-resistant corn, thus leaving intact the resistant corn’s viability.

But apparently, these recommendations were not followed. Or maybe they were, and the insect’s genetic evolution is just that creative. At any rate, now the pest feeds on both kinds of corn. And a second GM type of corn as well.

I should mention that for the short glory period of ten years during which Bt resistant corn was introduced by Monsanto and remained rootworm-resistant, the GM corn became the leading corn crop in the United States. It now makes up three-quarters of all corn grown there.

The Electric Sheep project has been ongoing since 1999 and comes up with ever new iterations of ‘sheep’, lovely swirls of ever changing software DNA, pleasing to the eye and in constant motion.

The evolutionary project of the rootworm has been going on for over four million years, and apparently, it’s also still in constant motion.

Happy Vernal Equinox!

Seasonal Reverse and Updates

The Jura ridge, morning run, 23 May 2013 Photo: PK Read

The Jura ridge, morning run, 23 May 2013
Photo: PK Read

I took the picture above on my run yesterday morning, 23 May. Usually around this time of year I can pull out the warm-weather running gear, shorts and a T-shirt, but yesterday I was still in long running tights and a jacket. Why? Because it was unseasonably chilly, and snow was predicted. The pictures below illustrate the next 24 hours after the first photo. So, since the season seems to be moving in reverse, I thought I’d use today to update a couple of my regular topics.

Dusting of evening snow, 23 May 2013 Photo: PK Read

Dusting of evening snow, 23 May 2013
Photo: PK Read

Update 1: Slippery Elvers

The prices for elvers, or American glass eels, aren’t quite as astronomical as they were last year in Maine (one of only two US states to issue elver fishing licences, the other is South Carolina), but they are high enough that the gold rush atmosphere is still feverish.The eel bounty of 2012-2013 is credited with boosting the economy of a state in which has seen some hard times.

This is one situation where the connection between local economics and environmental impact is clearly outlined.

Last year, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) which oversees fishing regulations for the Eastern Seaboard completed a benchmark study assessing the stocks of the American eel. Although the eels migrate from a northern limit in Greenland down to a southern limit in French Guiana, all American eels in this range are considered as belonging to a single population. And as outlined by the ASMFC, the population is currently depleted.

According to an article in the Washington Post this week, “The eel management board of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission was scheduled to vote on proposed new regulations for glass, yellow and silver eel fisheries from Maine to Florida. But after a daylong discussion, the board instead decided to delay a vote until August and form a working group to gather more information about the glass eels, which are baby eels known as elvers. Options that were under consideration for Maine’s elver fishery included keeping the status quo, closing the fishery or setting a catch quota — or a combination thereof.”

Elvers have rescued some fishermen from financial ruin. Many local fishermen in Maine are opposed to further regulations, even as some admit that the boon can’t last.

The American eel population was once so robust that the small transparent elvers created a ‘wall of glass’ in their native rivers. My feeling is that increased efforts in education and collaboration between regulators and impacted fisheries would be the first step toward ensuring that the once abundant American eel can rebound.

The 2013 elver season ends 31 May, in one week.


ASMFC benchmark studyAmerican Eel Benchmark Stock Assessment

Washington Post articleRegulators postpone new rules for Maine’s elver fishery

Boston Globa articleEel fishing has been a boon to many in Maine by Jenifer B. McKim

Previous posts here, here, here and here

Snow on the Jura ridge, 24 May Photo: PK Read

Snow on the Jura ridge, 24 May
Photo: PK Read

 Update 2: Vernon Hugh Bowman (farmer) vs. Monsanto
In a previous post, I talked about the case of Bowman, an Indiana farmer who ran afoul of seed giant Monsanto. The case went through several courts, and this year, it was argued in front of the Supreme Court of the United States. It’s been a closely watched process to see whether the Supreme Court’s decision would include other patented self-replicated technologies (DNA molecules, nanotechnologies, etc.) as well as Monsanto’s soybean product, Roundup.
It’s a longish scenario, and you can check my post or the articles below for details. Basically, Bowman bought discarded seeds from a grain elevator under the assumption they would contain many discarded Roundup seeds. He then planted these seeds, harvested them (his assumption had been correct, and he had been able to use Roundup weedkiller on the soybeans without destroying them), and he replanted the results of his harvest for eight seasons. Monsanto sued him for patent infringement.
Last week, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor Monsanto, but kept the decision narrow, focusing only the specifics of the case at hand rather than the larger patent discussion.
From a New York Times article: “Bowman’s lawyers argued that Monsanto’s patent rights stopped with the sale of the first crop of beans instead of extending to each new crop soybean farmers grow that has the gene modification that allows it to withstand the application of weed-killer.
Justice Kagan disagreed. “Bowman planted Monsanto’s patented soybeans solely to make and market replicas of them, thus depriving the company of the reward patent law provides for the sale of each article,” she said. “Patent exhaustion provides no haven for such conduct.”

Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of Center for Food Safety, said the ruling was wrong. “The court chose to protect Monsanto over farmers,” Kimbrell said. “The court’s ruling is contrary to logic and to agronomics, because it improperly attributes seeds’ reproduction to farmers, rather than nature.”

But a soybean growers’ association said it was the correct decision. “The Supreme Court has ensured that America’s soybean farmers, of which Mr. Bowman is one, can continue to rely on the technological innovation that has pushed American agriculture to the forefront of the effort to feed a global population projected to pass 9 billion by 2050,” said Danny Murphy, president of the American Soybean Association.

This is such a complex discussion, too long for this post, but for the moment I leave it with these thoughts:

For the moment, whether or not one sides with Monsanto (and the US Supreme Court) on this argument depends less on what one thinks of Mr. Bowman’s case and his individual actions, and more on one’s views in terms of the notion of patenting living organisms, structuring agricultural practices to fit intellectual property laws that cover these patents, and to what extent one thinks that patenting is the best way of fostering innovation.


US Supreme Court decisionBowman vs. Monsanto No. 11-796

New York Times articleSupreme Court Supports Monsanto in Seed-Replication Case by Adam Liptak

Huffingtonpost article (AP) – Supreme Court Rules For Monsanto In Patent Case by Jesse J. Holland

Daily Finance articleBowman v. Monsanto: The Price We All Pay for Roundup Ready Seeds by Eamon Murphy

The CERN globe (Geneva, Switzerland), spring flowers in the front, snowy Jura range in the background - 24 May Photo: PK Read

The CERN globe (Geneva, Switzerland), spring flowers in the front, snowy Jura range in the background – 24 May
Photo: PK Read

Staking Territory 1

Image: 123rf

I’m always interested in the way creatures find to mark their territory, the variations in what can be considered grounds for competition. Physically marking territory for hunting by using scents; territory for mating by using struts, plumage or howls; fencing and barbed wire for farming. Staking territory to gain an advantage is probably almost as old as life.

When it comes to humans, we have invented systems for staking out the territory not just of where we are, but what we think. We call our thoughts intellectual property and we claim that property using patent and copyright law.

There’s a discussion over territory that’s both physical and intellectual that’s going on right now in the U.S. Supreme Court. On one side is a 75-year-old Indiana farmer, Vernon Hugh Bowman, who planted soybeans he purchased from the Monsanto company. They were Roundup Ready soybeans, which are engineered to be resistant to weedkiller. In the 15 years since its introduction, the Roundup system has grown to comprise 90% of all soy grown on U.S. soil.

When farmers buy Roundup Ready seeds, they sign agreements that they will not plant the seeds from the original plant for a new crop. The 2nd generation seeds contain the same engineering as the parent seeds, and each plant provides up to 80 new seeds. Most farmers comply. Mr. Bowman did not. He planted the 2nd generation seeds, and when Monsanto sued him for breach of contract, he went to court. And lost. He appealed, and lost again. Now the case is in front of the Supreme Court, and Mr. Bowman is appealing with the assistance of a large lawyerly contingent.

Their argument is that the Monsanto patent only extends as far as the seed generation that was sold and planted. Farmers have been saving seeds from one year to replant the next for millennia – it’s called agriculture. To limit the right to do so is to limit human culture by limiting choices to those products made available by a very few companies.

Monsanto doesn’t agree. The company spends vast amounts of money on research and development. If it can’t recoup that investment by selling its products, there is little incentive to develop new and useful technologies. Many business leaders and economists agree. “Our case is the template for a broader discussion,” said David Snively, Monsanto’s general counsel. “This is just really about how patent law concepts apply to tomorrow’s technologies.”

The United States has only allowed the patenting of living organisms since 1980 (Diamond v. Chakrabarty). As one article sums it up:

The difference here, some attorneys say, is that the patented item is a product of nature that regenerates on its own.

“Are they going to take nature into account? Are they going to take into account that this is what beans do?” asked Yvette Liebesman, a law professor at St. Louis University. “You can patent anything under the sun created by a human. If a plant is doing what plants do, is that something that humans have done?”Locked-garden-gate-web

Monsanto has an answer for that.

“This is not just a seed,” Snively said, “and to suggest that plants just grow themselves is preposterous.”

There have been calls recently to overhaul patent law, claims that it stifles real innovation and productivity. This is a topic I’ll explore later with regard to green issues.

For now, I will be watching Mr. Bowman and Monsanto use whatever means at their disposal to stake out their respective territories. It’s what we do.